The greatest stories ever played

Can video games combine strong narratives with actual play? Phil Hartup examines the contenders.

When Spec Ops: The Line appeared to a somewhat muted fanfare it didn’t look like much more than another Call of Duty wannabe in a third person view. At first it all feels like Gears of War reborn in a ruined Dubai, our hero dutifully shooting Islamic insurgents, presumably to stop them constructing some kind of Muslamic Ray Gun, shrugging off multiple gunshot wounds and exchanging cheerful banter with generic macho sidekicks. It is only once you get into the belly of the game that you start to realise that this is no ordinary story of good guys and bad rather that it is a subversive work of art not merely in terms of its content and narrative, but in how that narrative is delivered.

To summarise the plot of Spec Ops: The Line is not easy without spoiling it, and it really should not be spoiled, it should be experienced. Suffice it to say that it turns a run and gun action game into a painful descent into guilt and madness, at the same time examining the very nature of linear gaming. Spec Ops: The Line shatters the gaming trope that if you meekly kill everybody you are told to kill you can make everything right.

But here we come to the problem of Spec Ops: The Line, and it is one shared by almost every other game that has ever attempted to take a mature approach to storytelling: it is a game. When you choose to tell a traditionally structured story through a video game you need to make it, well, gamey. Games need something to do to stop them simply being a movie and this activity tends to be violent, which in turn can undermine the human elements. Max Payne 3 for example could have been a great story but for the body count. Heavy Rain tried to go in a different direction by turning elements of the story that were not violent into gameplay and this largely succeeded, but it hasn’t caught on. Too often a developer will reach for the small army of goons and have you shoot your way through them for no better reason than to delay the ending.

This problem is writ large in Spec Ops: The Line, where the very real emotional and psychological foundations of the tale are played out alongside cartoonish violence. There is a case to be made that Spec Ops: The Line is aware of that dichotomy and is toying with it, a satire of the Call of Duty military war-porn genre. But taking things to that level of analysis does little to mitigate the fact that while you are playing it and shooting your way through an entire US Army battalion, you get bored. You want the gunfire to stop and the story to start again. Challenge becomes chore and from a game design perspective this is a serious problem.

This flaw is inherent to linear gaming narratives. If the story is already set in stone then two symptoms develop in the game, firstly the actual act of playing the game becomes simply filler, busy work, to increase the run time of the game and secondly the story itself has to somehow acknowledge your actions during play in a credible sense. It is this last symptom that so cripples the story of Max Payne 3. Anything the plot has to say feels a bit like a footnote after you’ve cut a swathe through Sao Paulo like Godzilla on roller skates.

Thankfully not all games suffer this flaw. Skyrim benefits from the fact that not only does it have an open world; it also has an open story. There are linear quest chains in the game with pre-planned narratives but the degree of control in how you approach them is so complete that you can choose to not approach them at all. Don’t want to save the world? No biggie. Get married and build a little house in the mountains.

This ability to write your own story has been around almost as long as video games themselves. Elite for instance gave the player a spaceship, a laser, the ability to buy and sell goods and a populated galaxy to fly around in. It is also telling that The Sims has become one of the most popular game series in history by providing what basically amounts to a digital Lego set. Likewise, the phenomenon of Minecraft saw millions of eager gamers eschew a predetermined narrative for the simple joys of digging holes, building houses and getting chased around a procedurally generated world by exploding cacti. Every time you start a new game the story turns out differently.

If there is ever to be a truly great story in a video game perhaps this is where it will be born, in a dynamic sandbox environment, birthed out of the consequences and creativity of player actions rather than on the storyboard of a studio developer.

A screenshot from Spec Ops: The Line. Photograph: ryjek.net

Phil Hartup is a freelance journalist with an interest in video gaming and culture

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Theresa May's cabinet regroups: 11 things we know about Brexit negotiations so far

The new PM wants a debate on social mobility and Brexit. 

This was the summer of the Phony Brexit. But on Wednesday, the new Tory cabinet emerged from their holiday hideaways to discuss how Britain will negotiate its exit from the EU. 

The new prime minister Theresa May is hosting a meeting that includes Brexiteers like David Davis, now minister for Brexit, Boris Johnson, the new Foreign secretary, and Liam Fox.

For now, their views on negotiations are taking place behind closed doors at the PM’s country retreat, Chequers. But here is what we know so far:

1. Talks won’t begin this year

May said in July that official negotiations would not start in 2016. Instead, she pledged to take the time to secure “a sensible and orderly departure”. 

2. But forget a second referendum

In her opening speech to cabinet, May said: “We must continue to be very clear that ‘Brexit means Brexit’, that we’re going to make a success of it. That means there’s no second referendum; no attempts to sort of stay in the EU by the back door; that we’re actually going to deliver on this.”

3. And Article 50 remains mysterious

A No.10 spokesman has confirmed that Parliament will “have its say” but did not clarify whether this would be before or after Article 50 is triggered. According to The Telegraph, May has been told she has the authority to invoke it without a vote in Parliament, although she has confirmed she will not do so this eyar.

4. The cabinet need to speak up

May’s “you break it, you fix it” approach to cabinet appointments means that key Brexiteers are now in charge of overseeing affected areas, such as farming and international relations. According to the BBC, the PM is asking each minister to report back on opportunities for their departments. 

5. Brexit comes with social mobility

As well as Brexit, May is discussing social reform with her cabinet. She told them: “We want to be a government and a country that works for everyone.” The PM already performed some social mobility of her own, when she ditched public school boy Chancellor George Osborne in favour of state school Philip Hammond. 

6. All eyes will be on DExEU

Davis, aka Brexit minister, heads up the Department for Exiting the EU, a new ministerial department. According to Oliver Ilott, from the Institute for Government, this department will be responsible for setting the ground rules across Whitehall. He  said: “DExEu needs to make sure that there is a shared understanding of the parameters of future negotiations before Whitehall departments go too far down their own rabbit holes.”

7. May wants to keep it friendly

The PM talked to Prime Minister Sipilä of Finland and Prime Minister Solberg of Norway on the morning of the cabinet meeting. She pledged Britain would "live up to our obligations" in the EU while it remained a member and "maintain a good relationship with the EU as well as individual European countries".

8. But everything's on the table

May also told the Finnish and Norwegian prime ministers that negotiators should consider what is going to work best for the UK and what is going to work for the European Union, rather than necessarily pursuing an existing model. This suggests she may not be aiming to join Norway in the European Economic Area. 

9. She gets on with Angela Merkel

While all 27 remaining EU countries will have a say in Brexit negotiations, Germany is Europe’s economic powerhouse. May’s first meeting appeared amiable, with the PM telling reporters: “We have two women here who have got on and had a very constructive discussion, two women who, I may say, get on with the job.” The German Chancellor responded: “Exactly. I completely agree with that.”

10. But less so with Francoise Hollande

The French president said Brexit negotiations should start “the sooner the better” and argued that freedom of labour could not be separated from other aspects of the single market. 

11. Britain wants to hold onto its EU banking passports

The “passporting system” which makes it easier for banks based in London to operate on the Continent, is now in jeopardy. We know the UK Government will be fighting to keep passports, because a paper on that very issue was accidentally shown to camera.